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'I'm Not a Teacher, But I Play One in the Movies': The Movie Teacher Myths

Pamela Monk

Movies create iconic, mythical teacher figures who, in two or so hours, do both more harm and more good than any actual human could achieve in a lifetime.

Question: What do the following cinematic portrayals of teachers have in common: Jack Black (School of Rock), Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society), Michelle Pfeiffer (Dangerous Minds), Samuel Jackson (187), Edward James Olmos (Stand and Deliver), Sandy Dennis (Up the Down Staircase), Sidney Poitier (To Sir with Love), Hilary Swank, (Freedom Writers), Denzel Washington (The Great Debaters), and Cameron Diaz (Bad Teacher) ?

Answer: Each has pretty much nothing in common with actual teachers and the work they do.

I've been a teacher forever—ok, since 1974—and every time a new teacher movie comes out, I hope that this time it might actually show something real. Unfortunately, it never does. The real life of a teacher in America has neither the highs nor the lows portrayed in cinema, whether the teacher in the movie is a saint, a villain, or a fool, or some amusing/horrifying combination.

I understand that what we see in the movies is meant to be entertaining and make money. Plus, no one would pay a cent to spend leisure time watching a high school algebra teacher grade exams. But the myths these movies perpetuate are part of our cultural fabric, which makes it unsurprising that they have a subtle effect on the ongoing civic debate we conduct over public education, as well as the role and responsibilities of the teacher.

This issue may not be as clear-cut as the so-called "CSI Effect", the phenomenon in which juries expect police department forensic units to provide dramatic, incontrovertible scientific proof in order to convict. Nonetheless, the depiction of teachers in films have very real effects on teachers in the real world. Below are some examples of the pervasive stereotypes that teachers regularly face.

Myth: The best teachers are the most beautiful.

Reality: Teachers look like teachers. The first time I realized this was in 1985, when my family spent a school year in France. As long as they didn’t speak, my children’s teachers were absolutely indistinguishable from my colleagues back home. There was nothing to indicate they were French. Career teachers are pleasant looking, comfortable and confident. They communicate authority and radiate safety. The stunningly beautiful people are always going to be the center of attention, and they will always make everyone else nervous. They can’t help it. Effective teaching involves a certain amount of getting out of the way.

I must be a glutton for punishment, because I voluntarily went to see Dangerous Minds, knowing full well it starred Michelle Pfeiffer. But I was completely exasperated to see that her golden extravagance wasn’t enough; she had to also be an ex-Marine who was deadly proficient in karate. Seriously? Denzel Washington as a debate coach in The Great Debaters? He wins arguments by existing—no words necessary.

Myth: Papers grade themselves. Movie teachers might mention that they are swamped, and the audience might see a shot or two of papers piled on a desk.

Reality: All sorts of studies have been done trying to quantify just how much time teachers spend marking papers. One example helps quantify the issue at hand: one study found that teachers on the average, teach eight hours per day, then spend three to five hours more contacting parents, prepping for class, and grading. Even considering the fact that teachers get weekends off, out of every 60 hour week a teacher spends 20 above and beyond the classroom. That’s 33 percent of the time. For a two hour movie to accurately portray this, viewers would have to endure 40 minutes of a teacher making phone calls, poring and scribbling.

And the Oscar goes to… no one! Teacher movies add to the popular notion that teachers don’t really have that much to do.

Myth: Teachers have one class or club of 15-25 students, to which they devote themselves to saving, rescuing, inspiring, or destroying, depending on the film.

Reality: Teachers in most high schools teach five sections, with two or more preparatory periods. That can mean up to 125 students daily. In addition to these numbers are whatever extra-curricular clubs they voluntarily take on.

This is much like the way screen families only sit on three sides of a table. Who eats like that? Real teachers can’t devote themselves to one class that way; it’s not humanly possible. The bar is set ridiculously high: Save them… ALL OF THEM.

Myth: Teachers dedicate themselves to their students, because they have no lives, or unsatisfactory lives of their own.

Reality: Teachers are part of the fabric of their communities. It’s a family friendly profession, where having children is considered a benefit, not a harm. Moreover, the raising of children takes up time and energy and dedication that has to be portioned off from the demands of the job.

A Brief Non-Scientific Survey: I worked with 11 people on a sixth grade team. There were 17 children being raised among all of us, an average 1.4 per teacher.

Of the 13 movie teachers mentioned in this article, only the teacher played by Denzel Washington had children, fictional or otherwise. The actual Mr. Tolson had four, making it an average of .3 per teacher. This is mentioned in passing, if at all.

One oft-forgotten factor about the parental aspects of teaching is that any teacher that decides to step out of the role and become a parent to a student better be damn sure to really be a parent, or risk becoming just one more adult who promises more than he or she can deliver. Professional distance is not a bad thing.

Myth: One rebellious loner, usually a pure and idealistic first year teacher successfully battles a corrupt, indifferent system, boneheaded parents, low expectations from an unjust society. The other teachers are either craven or jaded, if not actively hostile.

Reality: To appropriate the philosopher Dave Mason, “there ain’t no good guy , there ain’t no bad guy"; both are inside every teacher. Teachers, the ones who enjoy both their profession and the respect of colleagues and students are often as idealistic as they are cynical. It’s a paradox built into the job.

Here’s how I had to explain it one day to an absurdly bright sixth grader, Nate, who challenged me when I assigned my class to set three independent goals for their writing.

“Mrs. Monk,” he said, “That’s impossible. You can’t assign anyone to be independent.”

“Nate,” I said, “Out in the hall, now.” He cheerfully accompanies me, as the very command was making his point for him. I draw on the cinderblock wall an imaginary line.

“See this line? It’s a continuum.” He, being brighter than just about anyone else he’d met, including me, was impressed with my vocabulary. “On the one end is liberator, on the other oppressor. And that’s my job. I have to keep everyone in line while I teach each of you how to learn. So this assignment is my best shot at achieving some sort of equilibrium. Give me a break and set yourself some goals.”

Nate agreed to lay off the logic and indulge me. But what fun is going to see a movie whose protagonist teacher struggles with the existential absurdities involved with telling young people day after day, “Free your mind, but raise your hand?”

I can’t speak for about doctors, police officers, and lawyers who watch disease of the month tearjerkers, procedurals and courtroom dramas, but I wonder if a surgeon who looks like George Clooney could actually be competent. And I certainly don't mean this to be an apology for real teachers (or doctors), because public education is a flawed system comprised of people just as imperfect and flawed, desperately in need of intelligent, practical professionals with fresh ideas who know how to put them in action.

Movies don’t help us with this goal. They create iconic, mythical figures who, in two or so hours, do both more harm and more good than any actual human could achieve in a lifetime, let alone a 180 day school year. These are entertaining stories, for sure. However, as blueprints for action, they are less helpful.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention My Little Chickadee, where the movie makers got it right. Mae West, as Miss Florabelle, illustrates exactly the statement: “I’m not a teacher, but I play one in the movies.” For that reason, Mae West really is the best movie teacher ever.

Pamela Monk is a writer, teacher and storyteller. She is a member of the Journalism faculty in the College of Communications at Penn State.

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